W. H. Auden boasted to me that he had got a word — “plain-sewing” in the sense of “mutual masturbation” — into the OED by using it in print for the first time; but the OED now quotes a letter from me to the TLS reporting Auden’s boast…
Auden is famous for trying to get words into OED – and the fact that he had rooms upstairs from Burchfield in Christ Church probably facilitated the effort somewhat. See Charlotte Brewer’s accounts of this relationship in Examining the OED.
Derek’s anecdote got me to thinking further about different kinds of chains of quotation created by the OED, in which the OED is itself already implicated. More on this in my next post.
For now, here’s how OED2 (1989) documents plain-sewing, sv. plain [note that it doesn’t separate the euphemistic extension from the literal meaning, creating some unnecessary confusion, possibly]:
1969 Auden in N.Y. Rev. Bks. 27 Mar. 3/4, I conclude he [sc. J. R. Ackerley] did not belong to either of the two commonest classes of homosexuals, neither to the ‘orals’‥nor to the ‘anals’.‥ My guess is that at the back of his mind, lay a daydream of an innocent Eden where children play ‘Doctor’, so that the acts he really preferred were the most ‘brotherly’, Plain-Sewing and Princeton-First-Year.
1971 Observer 7 Nov. (Colour Suppl.) 35/4 One of my [sc. W. H. Auden’s] great ambitions is to get into the OED, as the first person to have used in print a new word. I have two candidates at the moment, which I used in my review of J. R. Ackerley’s autobiography. They are ‘Plain-Sewing’ and ‘Princeton-First-Year’. They refer to two types of homosexual behaviour.
[1979 P. Fitzgerald Offshore vii. 80 The nuns‥in a class known as plain sewing, had taught her‥darning, patching, reinforcing collars with tape.][note: a different sense of the term!]
1980 Times Lit. Suppl. 21 Mar. 324/5, I suspect ‘Plain-Sewing’ to be Auden’s own invention, but its meaning is fairly clear, as it involves a pun on ‘sowing’ (seed or semen) and a reference to the two-and-fro [sic] action of the hand in sewing.
Notice that the second quotation actually refers to the first quotation, and that both are by Auden. So Auden not only succeeds in his ambition to get plain-sewing in, he is also quoted publicly lobbying for its inclusion (perhaps also indicating there has been some private lobbying).
In the revised OED3, the 1971 quote has been suppressed, and the March TLS quote has been replaced with Derek Attridge’s follow-on letter, from April:
1969 W. H. Auden in N.Y. Rev. Bks. 27 Mar. 3/4, I conclude he [sc. J. R. Ackerley] did not belong to either of the two commonest classes of homosexuals, neither to the ‘orals’..nor to the ‘anals’… My guess is that at the back of his mind, lay a daydream of an innocent Eden where children play ‘Doctor’, so that the acts he really preferred were the most ‘brotherly’, Plain-Sewing and Princeton-First-Year.
1980 D. Attridge in Times Lit. Suppl. 18 Apr. 441/1 Auden..once boasted to me..of his having been the first to use ‘Plain-Sewing’ in print, and explained it as a sailor’s term for mutual masturbation.
In addition to the analysis of the metaphorical origin of the term given by the first TLS quote, some of the literary history evident in the OED2 entry has been lost, especially as it sheds light on OED’s own editorial practices. Like the OED quoting Muldoon quoting Heaney quoting OED, a link is missing in the OED chain of evidence – and that link is the role of OED itself in the making of the quotations.
Incidentally, Derek is the first commenter on this blog [… and probably the first reader of it] who is also quoted in the OED. In addition to employing plain-sewing in 1980, he’s in for senses of accentually, promotion, and reconcilable, from 1974, 1995 and 2004, respectively.
Now if only OED would quote me quoting him commenting on me quoting Muldoon quoting Heaney quoting OED… [heads up, Peter].